The topic of added sugar in the standard American diet has gotten a fair amount of attention in recent years, and for good reason: We’re eating way too much of it, and it’s affecting our health. Not only are excessive amounts of sugar linked to weight gain, experts say, but several other medical conditions as well.
Compounding the problem is that sugar — in its many forms — makes food tantalizing ... and, for some people, enormously hard to resist. And it’s become ubiquitous in a huge array of foods, making it ever more difficult to avoid.
Never fear, though! If you, like many people, are starting to realize how much added sugar is creeping into your daily menu, we’ve got a number of strategies to help you switch to a low-sugar diet plan. Read on to learn simple ways you can reduce your sugar intake starting today.
The problem with added sugar
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Experts say that the natural type of sugar found in fruits, vegetables, dairy products and other healthy foods typically isn’t the issue; it’s the added sugar in more than 80% of processed foods that is causing health problems for people.1 In addition to weight gain, consuming excessive amounts of sugar is linked to several serious health conditions, including coronary heart disease, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.2
And, unfortunately, the problem with added sugar in the diet may be more prevalent than you think. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)3 recommend that less than 10% of your daily calories come from added sugars — that’s equal to 200 calories, maximum, in a 2,000 calorie diet. Yet the average American aged 6 or older got about 14% of their daily calories from added sugars between 2003 and 2010, the CDC reports.
Low-sugar diet benefits
According to a 2017 study published in the BMJ that looked at the health and economic benefits of reducing sugar intake in the U.S.,4 more than half of all American adults consumed 50-plus grams (more than 11 teaspoons) of added sugar daily between 2005 and 2012. That amount is greater than the maximum intake recommended by the American Heart Association5 (for most women, less than 100 calories per day, or approximately 6 teaspoons; for most men, less than 150 calories per day, or approximately 9 teaspoons).
However, looking at models that analyze the benefits of reducing the intake of added sugar by 20% between 2015 and 2035, researchers state that it would decrease the prevalence of a number of health conditions, including coronary heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and others. And from an economic standpoint, a 20% reduction in added sugars would lower direct medical costs for adults in the U.S. by more than an estimated $10 billion annually by the year 2035.
10 ways to reduce your sugar intake
If you are looking to adopt a low-sugar diet, the best way to start is by reducing the amount of added sugars in your diet, experts say. According to the CDC,3 the top sources of added sugars in the American diet are sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, dairy-based desserts such as ice cream, and grain-based desserts such as cakes and pastries. It makes sense to reduce your intake of these foods and drinks, but there are additional ways to reduce your sugar intake. Here are 10.
1. Don’t go cold turkey
If sugar has become a mainstay of your daily diet, it might be better to wean yourself from it slowly, suggest the experts at Harvard Health.6 Otherwise, if you cut all added sugar out of your diet all at once, you may ramp up your cravings. Other people say that trying to cut all sugar from their diets in one fell swoop may lead to some unsavory side effects, including headaches, irritability and feelings of anxiety. So if you’re accustomed to, say, a 3 o’clock pick-me-up of candy at the office, try substituting it with a healthier alternative like apple or orange slices that contain natural sugars.
At the same time, focus on eating a healthy diet brimming with more satisfying foods, and ones that are digested more slowly than sugar, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and a small amount of healthy oils. You can still have sweets in moderation, but beware of added sugars elsewhere in your diet (such as drinks and candy).
2. Watch the sugary drinks
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According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans,9 39% of added sugars in the average American diet comes from sugar-sweetened beverages. What’s more, adults in the U.S. consume an average of 145 calories from such drinks — which include soda, coffee and tea with added sugar, energy drinks, sports drinks and others — on any given day.10
And those calories add up — quickly. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health,11 if you drink one can of sugar-sweetened soda every day without reducing calories in other places, you could gain up to 15 pounds over the course of three years.
But excess calories aren’t the only concern with sugary drinks. Consuming sugar-sweetened beverages frequently is also associated with weight gain or obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, tooth decay and cavities, and Type 2 diabetes.12
How can you reduce your sugary beverage intake? Try swapping soda for naturally flavored water (add cucumber slices, or watermelon slices to a pitcher of water and let soak overnight) or sip herbal tea — hot or iced!
3. Drink plenty of water
Drinking enough water is not only important for your overall health, but it may also aid with weight loss. And that’s not all: A recent study showed that in addition to helping reduce your calorie intake, increasing the amount of water you drink can help lower your consumption of sugar, in addition to saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol.12
The researchers found that people who increased their water intake by one, two or three cups per day lowered their calorie intake by 68 to 205 calories daily. They also reduced their sugar intake by 5 to 16 grams per day.
While water intake needs vary for every person, a general rule of thumb is to aim for a minimum of eight, 8-ounce glasses per day or about half of your body weight in ounces. Depending on the weather and your activity level, you may need even more.
4. Scope out food labels
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While it’s a good idea to avoid foods that list sugar as the first or second ingredient, it’s not always that simple. In an effort to avoid listing sugar as the first ingredient, some food manufacturers use different types of sugar (and there are lots of them) in their products, all of which are listed individually — and therefore in smaller amounts — which can make it difficult to determine how much total sugar is in that food.9
What’s more, manufacturers are not required — at least for now — to differentiate between naturally-occurring sugar (such as that in fruit) and added sugar; they only need to list a product’s total amount of sugar. However, that’s due to change in the near future as manufacturers will be required to disclose whether added sugars are included in a product on the food label.13,14
You’ll find added sugar information on all of Jenny Craig food products by 2020. Here are 5 other little-known facts about Jenny Craig food.
In the meantime, the Arthritis Foundation13 advises that you watch for ingredients ending in -ose, which indicates some type of sugar; examples include dextrose, fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose. Also keep an eye out for the following ingredients, all of which constitute added sugars:9
- Agave nectar
- Brown sugar
- Cane sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
5. Watch for sugar in unsuspecting places
In addition to obvious items such as candy and sugary drinks, added sugar can lurk in some less-obvious places, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:14
- Canned fruit
- Condiments (barbecue sauce, ketchup, etc.)
- Dried fruit
- Fruit juices
- Pasta sauce
- Salad dressing and other condiments
6. Pay attention to high-fructose corn syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is an artificial sugar made by processing corn starch. It’s found in many food products including soda, candy, condiments and ice cream, to name a few. The Cleveland Clinic notes that high-fructose corn syrup is cheaper to produce, sweeter and absorbed quicker by the body than regular sugar.1 While not all experts agree, some say that eating too much high-fructose corn syrup can increase the risk of high blood pressure, insulin resistance, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.1 High-fructose corn syrup can usually be spotted on food labels.
7. Watch your portion sizes
Just as keeping an eye on your portion sizes is important for weight loss, doing so is also a good strategy for reducing the amount of sugar in your diet — especially when it comes to desserts, sweet snacks and other foods that are high in sugar.
8. Choose fresh fruit over dried
Although they’re often touted as being healthy, dried fruits — even if they have no added sugar — can be brimming with sugar (albeit the natural form). Due to the removal of water — the sugar is more concentrated in dried fruit. Take raw apricots for example. 100 grams of the fresh variety contain 9.24 grams of sugar;15 whereas 100 grams of dried apricots contain 37.25 grams — and that’s with no added sugar!16
9. Opt for healthier desserts
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Why tempt yourself with all those delicious (but unhealthy!) foods that are brimming with sugar? Stock your fridge with healthy dessert alternatives instead, such as nonfat yogurt and fruit. Or opt for a healthier version of your favorite treat. Jenny Craig’s Peanut Butter Cookies taste like a decadent treat, but they’ve only got 4 grams of added sugar!
10. Try these additional tips
Here are several additional strategies to help reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet:6
- Opt for unsweetened versions of foods like plain yogurt. If you want to add a little sweetness, slice up some fresh fruit!
- Watch for sugar in reduced-fat foods. Manufacturers often add extra sugar even though they’re removing fat.
- Eat a healthy breakfast. Eating a healthy, filling, nutritious meal may make you less likely to cave in to cravings later; eggs, fruit and oatmeal are all good choices.
The bottom line: Eating too much sugar can impact your weight loss goals and your health. We hope this information provides even more reason to reduce your sugar intake and follow a low-sugar diet plan.
Want help crafting a diet plan that fits your lifestyle? Jenny Craig can help! Whether you want a low-sugar plan, a meatless one, or one crafted just for women or men, our personalized meal plans can help you work toward your weight-loss goals.
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and reviewed by certified professionals.
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